Assassins fate, p.97
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       Assassin's Fate, p.97
 

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  serve.’ I looked again, and it was Kettricken. I felt a boyish lurch of joy inside me. My queen. Oh, Nighteyes.

  ‘Kettricken. I did not see you there.’

  ‘You never did,’ she said and smiled sadly. Then she called to Spark, asking for a little kettle from her pack and the blue roll of herb-bundles.

  ‘Da, tomorrow, you will feel better,’ Bee told me. ‘We will begin the journey back to the market-circle, and from there, we can take you home. Nettle says that there are new healers at Buckkeep, from far-off places with new ideas.’

  ‘So Nettle sent you to bring me home?’ I suddenly realized how wrong this all was. Was this a dying man’s illusion? I looked into the darkness. ‘She sent no coterie here?’

  An uncomfortable expression passed over Bee’s face. ‘I left her a note,’ she said quietly. Then, at my shock, she added, ‘She wasn’t going to let me come. She was going to send a coterie after you, to bring you home.’

  ‘Bee, I am not going to go home. I am going to finish here.’ She reached out to take my hand and I tucked it under my other arm. ‘No, Bee.’ She lifted her hands and covered her face. I looked over her head at the Fool hovering at the edge of our circle. I tried to find some comforting words. ‘You will have to trust me that this is a better end than I would face if I came home. And this is the ending I choose for myself. My decision, for me.’

  The Fool stared at me, and then stepped back out of the firelight. Kettricken came, bearing a small steaming kettle and a thick pottery mug. She offered me the mug and I held it as she poured her brew into it. Her hands shook slightly.

  I sipped at the tea and tasted carryme and valerian for pain, and enlivening herbs and ginger all sweetened with honey. It worked swiftly; the pains eased. It was as if I poured life back into my body.

  ‘Tomorrow you will be strong enough, and we will take you back to Buckkeep and the healers there,’ Kettricken offered hopefully.

  I smiled at her as she sat down beside my fire. Yes. It would be a long farewell. ‘Kettricken, you have been here before. We both know how this ends. You see my wolf at my back. I will finish him, and now that Nighteyes is with me again, it will go more swiftly.’ I reached behind me to set my hand on his paw. I felt each toe, the space between them, and recalled how his claws had been set. I stroked the polished smoothness of one, and almost expected him to twitch his foot away in annoyance, as he always had.

  You always teased me when I was trying to sleep, barely touching the hairs between my toes. It tickled unbearably.

  I let that shared memory soak into the stone. For a time, I was alone with him. I heard Kettricken retrieve the mug and her quiet steps as she walked away.

  ‘Fitz, can you leave off that for a time? Stop carving until you have regained some of your strength?’ There was a plea in Lant’s voice. I opened my eyes. Time had passed. They had rigged a shelter over my wolf and me. The fire was in front of it, and the tent contained the warmth. I was grateful. The Mountain nights were cold. They sat in a semicircle on the other side of the fire. I looked around at them. Little Bee, my stableboy, an apprentice assassin, Chade’s bastard, and my queen. And the Fool. He was there, sitting at the very edge of the firelight. Our eyes met and then looked away from me. He had seen this before, as had Kettricken. I tried to help the others understand.

  ‘Once begun, there is no stopping this task. I have already put a great deal of myself into the wolf, and as I add more, I will become vaguer—just as Verity did. This task will consume me, as it consumed him.’ I struggled to focus on their anxious faces. ‘Bee, know this now, while I can still marshal my thoughts. I will become distant to you. It almost broke Kettricken’s heart, how Verity ignored her. But he never stopped loving her. He had put his love for her into his dragon, for he never expected to see her again. It is still there, in the stone. To last forever. And so it will be with my love for you. And the wolf’s love for you.’ I looked at Lant, at Spark, at Per. ‘Everything I feel for each one of you will go into the stone.’ My gaze sought out the Fool’s, but he was looking past me, into the darkness.

  Bee was sitting between Spark and Per. Her hair had grown but it was still short. Golden and curly. I had never seen such hair. My curls and my mother’s coloration. My mother. Would I put her into the wolf? Yes. For she had loved me in the time she had me.

  ‘Fitz?’

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘You keep drifting away.’ Kettricken looked at me with concern. Bee had wilted over and was asleep by the fire. Someone had put a blanket over her. ‘Are you hungry still? Do you want more food?’

  I looked down at a bowl with a spoon in it. The taste of beef soup was in my mouth. ‘Yes. Yes, please.’

  ‘And then you should sleep. We should all sleep.’

  ‘I’ll keep the first watch,’ Lant offered.

  ‘I will keep you company,’ Spark added.

  I finished the soup and someone took the bowl. Soon, I would sleep. But while the taste of the good food was fresh in my mind, I would put it into my wolf.

  In the time before dawn, I felt a tug at my sleeve. I’d been putting the roughness on the bottoms of the pads of his feet. Strange to shape something I could neither see nor touch. I looked down at Bee sitting cross-legged beside me. She had an open book before her, and a pot of ink and a brush and a pen, all set out neatly. ‘Da, I dreamed of a time when I would sit beside you and you would tell me the tale of your days. I want that now, for I do not think we will have years for you to pass that on to me.’

  ‘I recall that you told me that dream.’ I looked around the quarry. ‘This is not how I imagined it. I thought I would be an old man, too feeble to write, and that we would sit by a hearth fire in a pleasant chamber, after a long and lovely life together. Is that the book I gave you to write in?’

  ‘No. That one went to the bottom of the bay at Clerres, when Paragon became dragons and we all fell in the water. This is a new one. The one you call Fool gave it to me, along with a book for writing down my dreams. He reads that one, and tries to help me understand them. But this one … He has explained how you must put all your memories into your wolf so that he can become a stone wolf, just as Verity is a stone dragon. But as you put them in, if you spoke them aloud, I could write them down. So I would have at least that much of you to keep.’

  ‘What would you have me tell you?’ It was hard to stay focused on her. My stone wolf waited for me.

  ‘Everything. Everything you might have told me as I was growing up. What is the first thing you remember?’

  Everything I might have told her, had I longer to live. That was a fresh cut of pain. Was it a memory to consider the future we would never have? I considered her question. ‘The first thing I remember clearly? I know I have older memories, but I hid them from myself, long ago.’ I drew a deep breath. Hiding memories again. Setting the pains and the joys deep into stone. ‘The rain had soaked through me. The day was chill and cold. The hand that held mine was hard and callused. His grip was remorseless but not unkind. The cobblestones were icy, and that grip kept me from falling when I slipped. But it also would not let me turn around and run back to my mother.’

  She dipped her pen and began to write rapidly. I could not tell if she took down my exact words, and as I began to pour those first memories into the wolf, what she wrote mattered less and less.

  Dawn came. Lant and Per followed my directions to the stream and came back with fish. There was bread to go with it, and bacon to cook it in. I felt my strength returning to me as my body finally began to get the sustenance it needed to both rebuild what the parasites were destroying and power me through my carving. They were catching the fish and bringing the firewood. I no longer had to leave my carving at all. It was kind of them and I managed to tell them so, but the more I carved my wolf, the more focus it demanded and the less I cared for any of them.

  I knew what was happening to me. It was not the first time that I had poured memories into a stone dragon. Decades ago, I had take
n the pain of losing Molly and poured it into Girl-on-a-Dragon. Surrendering that pain to stone had deadened me in a way that was a relief, but there was a darker side to that forgetting. I’ve seen folk who numbed their pain with strong drink or Smoke or other herbs and always the loss of their pain made them less connected. Less human. And so it was with me.

  Every day, I told tales to my little daughter, and every day I gave those same memories to the stone. Sometimes she wept for me as I told her of my days in Regal’s dungeons. When I told her that after she was born I was not sure how to love such a peculiar infant, she wept again. Perhaps for her mother, partnered to such a thoughtless man, or perhaps for herself, child to such a man. And the pain that thought gave me, I pushed as well into the stone. It was a relief to have it gone.

  Sometimes I laughed as I babbled to her of pranks that Hands and I had played, and sometimes I sang aloud as I told her of learning ‘Crossfire’s Coterie’ from a wandering minstrel. Nighteyes and I had merged more closely than ever into one being, so that it was rare to hear his thoughts as something other than my own. And I told his memories as well, of kills and fights and sleeping by the fire. She asked me when I had first met the Fool, and that tale led to another and another and another, all the stories of how my life had intersected and twined with his. So much of his life was mine and so much of mine was his.

  I worked and all about me, the life of the camp went on. Lant and Per hunted and fished, Spark hauled water and prepared the herb teas that kept my pains at bay. Some of the sores on my back opened. It was a distraction when Kettricken insisted on pouring warmed water down my back and using a handful of moss to scrub out the tiny mites that writhed in the sores. When I objected, she asked, ‘Would it be better if they ate you alive before your wolf was done?’ And then I saw the sense of what she did. She wore gloves and burned them in the fire afterward.

  Sometimes, when I had to stop working to eat or to drink, I saw the sadness in their faces. I felt guilt at the pain I gave them. And shame. And those things became emotions that I could put into my wolf.

  Several days after the Fool and Bee had arrived, others came. They rode horses into our camp, and brought with them more food. Bread and cheese and wine, once so simple, were now things to be savoured before my memories of them went into the stone. That evening, I became aware of who they were. I looked into Nettle’s grieved and shocked eyes. The Skill-coterie who had assisted her in coming set up their own tents at a short distance from ours. They spoke about me and around me and sometimes to me, but it was hard to steal my awareness from my task. Nettle spoke harshly to Bee and Spark and the Fool and Lant. I considered intervening, but I had the wolf to think of. There was no time or emotion to spare for other things.

  Nettle brought me food that evening—wonderful camp-bread baked in the fire’s embers and sharing its fragrance with the evening sky, sour apples toasted to a soft tang, and a slice from a smoked ham. I ate, savouring every bite twice, for I knew I would put each delightful sensation into my wolf. Nettle kept asking me if I would allow a Skilled healer to touch me.

  ‘It’s dangerous,’ I warned the waiting man. ‘Not only that you may somehow transfer some of the parasites to yourself, but also that I may accidentally take something of yours for my wolf.’

  The healer made a very cautious inspection of my infested wounds and attempted to see what might be happening inside me. He was a competent and plainspoken man. ‘The damage is extensive. In his weakened state, any herb we give him to try to kill the parasites would also kill him.’

  Bee spoke up. ‘Cannot the coterie use the Skill to tell the parasites to be dead?’

  The healer looked shocked. Then thoughtful. ‘If the creatures had minds at all, perhaps a very powerful Skill-user could suggest to them that their hearts stop beating. If they have hearts … No. I am sorry, child. There are such multitudes of them infesting your father that, even if we could Skill death to them, by the time we had killed a quarter of them, the rest would have bred enough to replace those we killed. Lord Chance has told us of seeing eggs and maggots in your father’s sores. They are living in him like wood ants in a fallen log. I tell you this plainly. Prince FitzChivalry is going to die. In his weakened state, I am not sure we can even take him back to Buckkeep Castle. Our best and kindest course might be to make him as comfortable as we can here. And offer him an end that begins with a deep sleep instead of what I fear is to come.’

  Bee lowered her face into her hands. I saw Per put his arm around her, and saw also the unease on Nettle’s face.

  ‘I will be going into the stone,’ I announced. ‘I am not sure that is the same as dying.’

  ‘It’s close enough. You’ll be gone,’ Nettle said bitterly.

  ‘And not for the first time,’ I replied.

  ‘Oh, that is so true,’ she said, and the impact of her words was like an arrow to my chest.

  I tried to clear my throat and realized there were no words that I could speak. Spark poured something into a cup and Lant passed it to me. I drank it. Some kind of spirit and a mixture of herbs. ‘What is in this?’ I asked when it was gone.

  ‘Carryme. Valerian. Some willowbark. A few other herbs that Nettle’s healer brought.’

  ‘As long as they aren’t the herbs that will make me sleep my way into death. I do not desire that, at all. I must be awake and aware when I go into the wolf. As Verity was.’ I shook my head. ‘Let no one seek to drug me insensible to save me pain. Keep me awake.’

  I looked over at my younger daughter. Per was standing behind her. He would never be Tallestman, but he would be broad, with the shoulders for an axe. Time to think of these things while I still could. Already the stone was calling to me. It was hard to keep my eyes focused on the people here. I drew a breath and squared my shoulders. Get this task done while I could. I looked at Nettle.

  ‘I have some directives regarding my younger daughter, Bee. I charge you, Nettle, and you, Fool, and you, Lant and you, my lovely queen Kettricken, to be sure that they are carried out.’ I had said something wrong. I saw it in Nettle’s face. Too late. I had never been good at speeches. And this one had not been planned. ‘I would ask my old friend Riddle as well, but he is a wiser man than I, and has remained with his daughter to watch over her.’ I forced myself to meet Nettle’s eyes. ‘Would that I had done so. Not once, but twice over. I felt the decision was not mine, but I now take responsibility for it. My daughters, I am sorry. I should have stayed with both of you.’ That pang of guilt was still sharp. No matter how often I put it into the stone wolf, when I thought of my failure, it still cut me. The Fool was staring at me. He shared that guilt. I could not mend what he must feel.

  I reined my thoughts back to the task at hand. ‘Per. Stand forth.’

  The boy came, wide-eyed, to stand before me. No. Not a boy. I’d taken that from him. I’d taken him from a stableboy to a young man who could and had killed—for my sake and Bee’s. I could trust him. ‘I wish you to remain at Bee’s side and serve her until the end of your days, or until one or both of you wish to be freed of this connection. Until then, I desire that no one part the two of you. And I wish you to be educated alongside her. In every discipline. Language. History. And for her to learn the sword and other weapons alongside you. I have nothing of my own to give you in reward for your service. Every valuable thing I ever owned, I’ve lost along the way. Except … wait.’ I groped at the ragged collar of my shirt. It was there, as it always was.

  It took me a time to unfasten it. I looked at it on my palm. The little fox looked up at me with sparkling eyes. I looked at Kettricken. ‘Would you give this to the boy, please? As once you gave it to me?’

  ‘After all these years, you still—’ She choked, and held out her hand. I tipped it into her palm. She looked at Per. ‘Young man. What is your full name?’

  ‘My lady, I am Perseverance of Withywoods. Son of Tallerman, grandson of Tallman.’ Instinct made him kneel. He bent his head, baring the back of his neck to her.
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  ‘Come closer,’ she bade him, and he rose to do so. I saw now that her fingers were becoming knotted and knuckly. But she made no complaint as she pinned the little silver fox carefully to his Buck-blue jerkin. ‘Serve her well and let nothing but death part you from that duty.’

  ‘I shall.’

  A moment of stillness. I broke it. ‘Nettle, my dear. Please ask Riddle to see to Per’s training. He will know exactly what he needs to be taught.’

  ‘I will,’ she said quietly.

  ‘I have nothing to give you,’ I told her. ‘Nothing for you and nothing for Bee. There are a few things of your mother’s at Withywoods in the chest at the foot of my bed. You and she must share them out. Oh. And Verity’s sword. There is that, but I am sure Dutiful will want it.’ Once, we had thought to trade our father’s swords, but after a few years, we had traded back. Now he would have both. One for each of his sons.

  I looked at Lant and Spark and tried for a smile. ‘I suddenly realize that I’m a poor man. Nothing to bequeath to anyone. I dare not even clasp wrists with you a final time.’

  ‘You wrote a letter to my father. It was all I could ever have desired from you,’ Lant said quietly.

  I looked at Nettle. ‘You will provide for Spark?’

  She looked directly at the girl. ‘She does not excel at following orders,’ she said drily. ‘I do not know how much I can trust her.’

  ‘Can she do needlework?’ Kettricken asked suddenly.

  Spark looked dismayed, but quietly replied, ‘Embroidery and crochet. Yes, my lady.’

  ‘I recall how well Patience was served by Lacey. Young woman, I am getting older. I could use a youngster in my service. At Buckkeep, and in the Mountains. Would you wish to accompany me to the Mountain Kingdom?’

  Spark’s eyes flickered a glance at Lant. He lowered his eyes and said nothing. ‘I have heard of Lady Patience’s Lacey. Yes, my lady. I believe I could serve you in a similar capacity.’

  There was a sadness there. I should have remembered something about it. But the itching, burning pains inside me and the unfinished wolf tugged and worried at my thoughts. It was so hard to focus. But there was something important left to do.

  I had only one bequest left. ‘Bee. In all things, and in a better way than I ever was, the Fool will act as father to you. Is that acceptable?’

  ‘But Riddle—’ Nettle began, but Bee interrupted. ‘Riddle has a daughter. As do you, my sister. I would that you were my sister and Riddle my elder brother rather than you become my parents.’ She smiled and it was almost real. ‘And recall that I have my brother Hap Gladheart also to look over me.’ She brought her gaze back to me and spoke earnestly. ‘And I have had a father. You were my father, and I will go on without one now. You need not worry for me, Da. In your own way, you have well provided for me.’

  ‘In my own way,’ I conceded. Pain. Bitter disappointment in myself. Something more to put into the wolf.

 
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